The epitome of culture shock may be going from spending 41 days in a rowboat to dancing with Eskimos in a native Alaskan village to walking through Grand Central Station — all within 30 hours. That’s how the beginning of last week played out for Paul Ridley ’05, who recently completed Arctic Row, a first-of-its-kind rowing expedition, with three other men.
On August 26, Team Arctic Row pulled into a rocky beach on Point Hope, Alaska, and set a number of ocean-rowing records. They had shoved off of the shores of Inuvik, Canada, on July 17 to embark on the first nonstop, unsupported row across the Arctic Ocean. The team’s intended destination was Provideniya, Russia, a 1,300-mile distance that they hoped to cross in approximately 30 days. However, some very serious, unforeseen circumstances threatened not only the completion of the expedition, but also the men’s safety.For one, “it turned out that this summer was the most unusual year weatherwise that anyone can remember,” Ridley said, based on conversations they had with town elders in Alaska and nationally published commentary by scientists.
Shortly after reaching the halfway point, Ridley and his teammates were forced to hunker down in a lagoon near Barrow, Alaska, for seven days due to a weather pattern that the New York Times described as a “powerful and rare summer storm, which is churning the Arctic Ocean’s already thin and reduced sea ice cover.”
The weather didn’t let up there. Several days after they rowed away from Barrow, another storm tied them up in Point Lay, Alaska, for three days. Then, a third storm hit them in Point Hope, where they anchored for six days.
Supplies were low and realities were setting in. The team had been rationing their food since the first storm, going from eating three meals and several snacks a day to only having half a candy bar for breakfast, half a candy bar for lunch, and one hot meal at night.
Time was also running out as the men’s visas and sailing permissions for Russia were set to expire at the end of August.
When Ridley and his teammates got word from their sponsor Weather Routing Inc. that the forecast looked dire, reaching Russia no longer seemed like a reasonable — or responsible — goal. “They said that unless we were going to be there a couple more weeks, we weren’t going to be able to move,” Ridley explained. “The weather report and the looming fall storm season made it clear to us that, unfortunately, we weren’t going to be able to go any further.”
After rowing more than 1,000 miles total, the team had to call it a day. They headed toward the nearest town, Point Hope, where they were warmly greeted by the native Tikigaq townspeople with a celebration, a feast of whale meat (a main part of the local diet), and warm beds.
Having earned the title of the youngest American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, Ridley isn’t a first-timer when it comes to dangerous expeditions.
For his 2009 Row for Hope, Ridley raised $150,000 toward cancer research in honor of his mother. During this summer’s row, Ridley and his teammates helped two University of Alaska Fairbanks professors conduct research to shed light on the Arctic ecosystem.
And, like Row for Hope, Arctic Row endured a series of unfortunate events — including a broken water maker, which also happened when Ridley was on the Atlantic.
Ridley and his teammates didn’t reveal all of their harrowing events in their daily blog, for fear of worrying their readership of family, friends, and well-wishers. But, they have more than 30 hours of the expedition on film and are currently shopping the documentary, Into Thin Ice, to investors and production houses.
“We were initially worried that the film would be really boring — just showing a lot of rowing — but the simple way to say it is, it’s going to be worth watching,” Ridley said.